Among the heads of state who gather for the United Nations General Assembly every September, the President of Rwanda Paul Kagame has always glittered a little brighter, appearing to have more friends and admirers in New York than any other head of state from a tiny African country.
This week, however, Kagame may be getting a more chilly reception when he arrives in New York. A draft United Nations report, recently leaked to Le Monde and the New York Times, has documented gross atrocities committed by Rwandan government troops in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kagame has denounced the report as fabrications from the very institution that stood aside and let the Rwandan genocide happen back in 1994. He's also threatening to pull Rwandan peacekeepers, among the best-trained in Africa, out of Darfur. The UN Secretary-General paid an emergency visit to Kigali to try to repair the damage, and has delayed formal publication of the report until October 1, when the General Assembly will be safely over and done with.
But that won't stop Kagame from having to face awkward questions while he's in town. The UN report accuses the Rwandan army of systematically murdering tens of thousands of Hutu civilians in Congo following its invasion of Congo in 1996.
Meanwhile, back in Rwanda, tens of thousands of civilians are estimated to have been murdered by Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front in its march to power in 1994. Kagame's government has thwarted any attempt by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, set up by the UN Security Council to prosecute the crimes of 1994, to prosecute officials of the RPF.
Then there's the steady crushing of political dissent. The New York Times has doggedly reported on the lopsided election in August 2010 that gave Kagame 93 percent of the vote; the exclusion of opposition parties from the race; the shooting of a Rwandan general who has broken with Kagame in broad daylight in South Africa; the fatal shooting of an independent journalist reporting on the South African incident; the grisly murder of an opposition politician; the closure of two opposition newspapers.
Kagame supporters have dismissed the UN report as unscientific. As Steve Terrill wrote on the Paul Kagame Fan Club website: "They required only two sources for each event cited in the report, regardless of the gravity of the incident. That’s the same requirement a local newspaper reporter has and is a far cry from the rules of evidence born by prosecutors and criminal investigators."
In the past, his audiences with the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have brought him praise as a visionary, a man who brought economic rationality to Africa, and of course most of all, the man who stopped the genocide in Rwanda.
And some of the world’s most admired figures have been his most ardent admirers for years. Bill Clinton has called Kagame “one of the greatest leaders of our time” who “freed the hearts and minds of his people to think about the future,” and bestowed his Global Citizen award on the Rwandan president last year. Tony Blair, who acts as an advisor to Kagame, recently praised the “visionary leadership” of “my good friend Paul Kagame,” while his former UK development minister, Clare Short, reportedly referred to Kagame as “such a sweetie.”
Meanwhile, American conservatives are also very fond of Kagame because he’s an up-by-the-bootstraps leader who promotes business and investment. As an admiring profile in the Wall Street Journal put it earlier this year, “The man who ended Rwanda's genocide doesn't want foreign aid. He wants investment and free trade.” Music to free market ears!
Philip Gourevitch has been one of America’s leading commentators on Rwanda since the publication of his 1998 book, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda.” The book helped spur an entire generation’s sympathetic concern for violence in Africa, and gave an important, and explicit, modern thrust to the shopworn phrase, “Never again.” He, too, has referred to Kagame in glowing terms, comparing him to Abraham Lincoln, “another famously tall and skinny civil warrior.” In a recent blog post on the UN report for The New Yorker, Gourevitch called the genocide accusation “sensational” and alleged that the standard of evidence used by UN investigators was “beyond minimalist.”
Perhaps the most vivid example of Kagame’s apotheosis is “Earth Made of Glass,” a documentary on the Rwandan genocide that received its premiere this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. Kagame himself flew in for the event, and with good reason: the film unswervingly portrays him as a savior and a visionary. Not a whisper of his deteriorating human rights record. Lurking behind all this hyperbolic praise is raw and bitter guilt. The US and the UK, like other governments, failed to intervene in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Both Clinton and Blair later emerged as moralists and humanitarian interventionists who claimed human rights as one of the guiding principles for American and British leadership in the world.
Will Kagame get the hero's welcome he's become accustomed to?
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was unique in its horror and its scale. It cannot be equated with the horrendous crimes of the Rwandan army in Congo in the following years, but neither can it be used to justify or obscure them. If Clinton, Blair and other global leaders continue to ignore the darker side of Kagame's story, they will only compound the problem. Burying the truth about horrific crimes is a very effective way to sow the seeds for future grievances and more violence.
Carroll Bogert is the Deputy Executive Director for External Relations at Human Rights Watch. Before joining Human Rights Watch, she spent more than a decade in international news reporting for Newsweek magazine, beginning as a stringer in China, then moving to the Southeast Asia bureau as correspondent, becoming bureau chief in Moscow, and finally working as an editor and international correspondent in the magazine's New York office. Bogert holds an M.A. in East Asian Studies and a B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard University. She speaks Russian, French, and Mandarin.